It’s pretty clear to me—now—that Monica Majoli is among the most important artists of her generation. Her paintings are strange: intimate, riveting, and alien. They’re also dark, disturbing, and sexy. As well as beautiful, wrenching, and dreamy. It’s difficult to stop looking at them. And it’s just as difficult to keep looking, without wondering: “What the fuck am I doing?” and “Why the fuck am I doing it?”
Majoli puts an individual’s relationship to a work of art front and center. Power, always lurking in the shadows of such—and all—social relationships, rears its ugly head. Her pictures make it impossible to ignore the various ways power gets wielded when you stop sleepwalking through life and behave honestly and sensitively—as if you really cared about what you were doing when looking at art, especially works that made your relationship to power (and its consequences) undeniable: not only essential to consider, but essential to act upon, both while you are alone, looking at pictures, and afterwards, when you return to the world and resume your interactions with others.
In 1992, that you was me and I sleepwalked right through Majoli’s paintings. I had been writing for the Los Angeles Times for just over a year, reviewing five exhibitions every other week. For my September 10 column, I was assigned Body Politics, a group exhibition at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, a nonprofit, artist-run space. The guest juror was Bruce Kurtz, then the curator of 20th-century art at the Phoenix Art Museum. From 200 applicants, he had selected works by five artists and one collective. Majoli had eight oils on panel in the exhibition.
Most were one-foot-square. Five depicted gay men having sadomasochistic sex, in pairs and groups. Three were close-ups of bruised flesh and broken skin. Together, the scaled-down scenarios and the life-size wrist, neck, and abdomen suggested that the latter group of works documented the aftermath of what was pictured in the former. Creating a before-and-after dynamic, Majoli had given viewers access to (at least) two moments: an event as it had occurred and the physical evidence of that event. Painting was the pivot on which those realities balanced. The same was true of memories, which emerged from the past to shape present desires, which unfolded in the future. By compressing time into singular, gem-like instants, Majoli invited us to see that art, even documentary art, is never over and done with: its power resides in the impact it has on viewers willing (and able) to subject themselves to its power, its mystery, its dominion.
In 1992, I saw none of that. In an otherwise measured assessment of the show as a whole, I dismissed Majoli’s works in a sentence and a half, writing, “… Majoli’s small paintings of sexual activities also sidestep politics yet fail to achieve much aesthetic significance. It is as if Majoli chooses sexy, forbidden subjects to compensate for her inability to render the human body convincingly.” My cluelessness was all the more egregious because I opened my review by applauding the artists in the exhibition for “allow[ing] the political implications of their work to unfold more slowly, with ambiguity and the active involvement of the viewer’s imagination and intelligence.” Precious little intelligence—and even less imagination—made its way into my account of Majoli’s art, which I avoided by treating it as if it had been made by a needy child, or a narcissist who would do just about anything to get attention.
That is the opposite of what actually happens within—and in front of—Majoli’s paintings of pain and pleasure, subjugation and release, bondage and freedom. I missed it completely because I failed see myself in her work—to understand that engaging art meant making myself vulnerable to its authority, in ways that are not all that different from subjugating one’s will to another’s. Rather than putting myself in the picture, I instead imagined that Majoli’s paintings were all about her fantasies. I also thought that she had no business painting gay men having sex with one another. Treating her as a voyeur—and an opportunist—I blinded myself to the complexity of what her works were up to.
Back then, the idea of cultural appropriation did not have the currency it has today. But that’s basically what I accused Majoli of doing: stealing other people’s identities to get a little attention for herself. Six months later, in a group show titled TRI-Sexual (at Rory Devine’s gallery in Hollywood) I saw two of Majoli’s paintings from the L.A.C.E. exhibition. They turned my world upside-down, and my head inside-out. I’m happy that happened. But now I wonder if a lot is getting missed from art today because we treat it as if it’s all about the artist’s identity and not our own.